The Community Rejuvenation Project cultivates healthy communities through beautification, education, and celebration. We achieve this mission through experiential programs that promote professional development, artistic and cultural expression, and community empowerment.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rejuvenating the Garden

Video, Story, and Slideshow by Desi W.O.M.E

The City Slickers truck arrived exactly at 11 AM laden with a huge pile of fresh steaming compost, a wheel barrow, and a pile of tools. The garden at the Oakland Green Youth Arts and Media Center had fallen into neglect and was looking shabby. Center staff arrived at the same time with a soft rumble of discontent, reflecting that it was an hour earlier than their normal schedule. "I'm here because he [Galen Peterson, OGYAMC Co-Director], made me show up," said performing artist and youth staff member, Olondis "O-zone" Walker.

The morning was still overcast as Julie Pavuk of City Slickers Farms began to explain the goals for the day. The entire garden was getting a facelift. Each of the 13 raised beds would be given a fresh layer of compost, new starters would be planted, and the group would build a worm bin. Within a few weeks, the garden would be producing fresh organc vegetables ready to eat. Julie introduced Joseph, who will mentor the group and oversee support for the center's young gardeners throughout the year.

Access to healthy food has burgeoned into a major issue throughout Oakland's flatlands, such as west Oakland, home to City Slickers, where there is one grocery store to serve over 25,000 people. Health food has been a particular challenge, because mono-cropped produce grown with pesticides are consistently being sold at below market rates while organic produce has remained expensive and is looked at as an exclusive product for a new population of wealthy residents. Breaking down these barriers, both real and perceptual, has been an impressive challenge for food-justice advocates. Probably the clearest example of this phenomenon is in West Oakland, where the Mandela Marketplace was recently opened next to the 99 Cent store. Despite having competitive prices for healthy alternatives, Mandela Marketplace has struggled to gain a foothold with longtime residents. However, many white West Oakland recent transplants, a symbol for many of the neighborhood's gentrification, have already begun frequenting the store.

The sun came out shortly before Matthew Linzner arrived with two youth from his Love Cultivating Schoolyards program. Matthew has been working at Ascend k-8 School and Urban Promise Academy through Oakland Leaf for the past 5 years. The youth that joined him were both Interns of the youth leadership program and ready to bring their knowledge back to the community. "Both of these guys have the skills to take over and manage a garden. They are ready to train and mentor aspiring farmers." The two young men busied themselves by drilling drainage holes for the new worm bin.

Earlier the same day, on the KPFA morning show, Jason Harvey, founder of the Oakland Food Connection, estimated that 30 - 40% of Oakland's produce could be grown locally, if its abandoned lots were used for localized gardens. OFC has been supporting local gardens in east Oakland in a similar way that City Slickers has been in the west. In some cases, this includes reclaiming some of the abandoned lots left vacant by their owners for many years. Cultivating food locally is the one of the ways to reduce the cost of healthy produce and since the lots are not being used for anything, they provide the perfect locations for local gardens.

Back at the Oakland Green Youth Arts and Media center, an hour's worth of work produced a notable difference. The youth's grumbles have been replaced by the steady banter of people deeply engaged in their work. City Slickers produces dozens of starters cultivated in their greenhouse from the back of their truck and the young men carefully loosen the sod around their roots as they place them in shallow holes in the raised beds. Joseph guides them and explains that the plants will need to drenched in water once a day for the next two weeks if they are to survive. Several questions are raised about proper care for the young plants and the youth seem genuinely engaged in their new project.

Its garden education programs like this that make local urban farms sustainable. Like the plants themselves, it takes time for the programs to take root. The Community Rejuvenation Project recently reclaimed an abandoned lot by Mills College on the corner of Seminary and MacArthur. The newly renamed Life Garden was started by youth in CRP's Arrow-Soul Council, an after-school program at Unity High School, along with Oakland activists and artists from the collective. CRP recognized immediately that maintaining the garden was beyond their capacity and turned the space over to nearby neighbors. However, reclaiming space is central to the collective's mission and their appetite for transforming lots was not satisfied. CRP has reached out to several food-justice organizations to build a support network of farmers to help train local residents in community gardening as more sites are reclaimed. They are applying for funding to bring together the aforementioned groups along with other likeminded organizations such as Grind for the Green, Women's Earth Alliance, and the Land and Life Garden to support an ongoing collaboration. They intend to start with a food justice mural on People's Grocery and continue with a series of projects to bring awareness to urban gardens and food equity.

Back at the center, just after 1 pm, the group quickly circled up to review plans for watering and garden maintenance. Food justice begins in these humble spaces with just few raised beds, new starts nestled in some fresh compost and a small cohort of fledgling gardeners.

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